Housed in a quaint converted cottage on the historic Church Lane in Manchester’s Prestwich, Aumbry Restaurant is one of the most talked about eateries in town and has been on my ‘to do’ list for quite some time. Some quick Googlage informs me that ‘aumbry’ refers to a cabinet or wall recess in medieval churches in which chalices and cruets of holy oils were stored. Apart from the street address, I’m not sure exactly what connection is – I didn’t see any chalices or evidence of holy oils (there may have been some truffle oil or a quality extra virgin olive oil). Perhaps, it’s because many tip Aumbry to be the restaurant that is most likely to win back a Michelin star for Manchester, the holy grail of restaurant accolades?
Prior to this visit, I had eaten Aumbry’s food on a couple of occasions: some small tasters at the Manchester picnic (see here) and then at the home of businessman Franco Sotgiu, where chefs Mary-Ellen and her husband Laurence and the team set up shop to feed Aiden Byrne, Gizzi Erskine and other assorted foodies at the Chroma Knives Charity Supper Club (see here). As a result, I was known to the kitchen and they did kindly provide a couple of extra courses on the house – but this, in no way, has influenced my integrity of posting a fair and genuine comment about my dining experience.
Having been so impressed by their food and the many high praising blog posts reviews and awards, I was keen to visit them on their own turf. By happy coincidence, I happened to be visiting during an exciting few days, not only was it the Manchester Food and Drink Festival but this week also saw Aumbry placed at number 67 in The Restaurant Magazine’s National Restaurant Awards for 2011 - this made Aumbry the highest entry for a Manchester restaurant (the only other being The Mark Addy at number 93.)
|2 Church Lane, Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AJ
Upon arrival, my wife and I were directed upstairs into their lounge area. The uneven floors, mismatched and antique furniture made for a comfortable setting. A diverse selection of framed music posters, artwork and photography, featuring bands such as local legends New Order, added an edge to an otherwise traditional feel.
As we sat and listened to the jazzy sounds of Ray Charles some canapés featuring homemade crisps and stunning smoked cheddar gougères arrived. We had booked, taking advantage of the MFDF ‘Mini Taster - Festival 15 Menu’ but were given the opportunity to upgrade to larger sized portions or to supplement with dishes from the regular tasting menu. Noticing that the mackerel and plaice dishes that I had at the Chroma Knives ‘do’ were on the menu, I decided that we would go for the supplements, as I knew my wife would love them.
|Chefs, husband & wife, Laurence Tottingham & Mary-Ellen McTague
After the canapés we were led downstairs - the intimate dining room accommodates just over twenty covers with a clever use of space that manages to retain the cosiness expected of a small restaurant whilst also preserving a suitable degree of privacy. The far end of the restaurant features an open view into the kitchen – personally I love this feature; the passion from the kitchen permeates the room. The calm purposeful hum from the hardworking chefs (punctuated only occasionally by a call from Mary-Ellen or Laurence at the pass) adds a unique atmosphere and judging by the number of regulars that the staff seemed to be greeting, keeps people coming back time and time again.
The décor of the room has elements of shabby chic with a generous helping of ‘tea room’. Mainly achieved through the impressive antique sideboard that the excellent front of house team use as their main work station and the distressed wooden chairs and further enhanced by the individually quirky pieces of vintage crockery. The slick service, formal table settings and of course food help to elevate the somewhat ‘minimalist setting’ into refined ‘fine dining’. The modern edge comes in the form of the food – a prime example being the amuse bouche of Pork Pâté which is topped with pickled cucumber and paired with a modish spherification of jasmine & honey. Sublime!
Having loved the Home Smoked Mackerel with Poached rhubarb, mustard cream & toasted rye bread when I had it previously, I was keen to see if it was as good as I remember. It was. My wife loved it too… a wonderful balance of flavours and textures.
Next up was one of Aumbry’s signature dishes, the Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg with homemade tomato ketchup & mushroom relish. This dish is a prime example of their commitment to local produce, beautifully showcasing the excellent blood sausage from just five miles away.
The next course was one that I was particularly looking forward to, a Celeriac Soup with Toasted Hazelnuts & Truffle Oil. Since I helped to create the Celeriac Espuma at the Michelin starred The Box Tree (see here) I have been a big fan of this root vegetable. The soup was delightful, served piping hot with a lovely smooth finish. The toasted hazelnuts were a real revelation with a texture akin to roasted chestnuts - an amazing autumnal dish.
My wife and I both enjoy oysters and since I had sung its praises, she had been keen to try the oyster suet pudding – part of the dish, Poached Plaice, Oyster pudding, parsley root, verjuice & nasturtium buds. As expected, she was blown away. Fortunately, this recipe is one of Aumbry’s featured recipes in the Relish Greater Manchester & Cheshire book, so I’ll be able to attempt to create it at home.
The next dish was, Wild Cumbrian Wood Pigeon with Buttered cabbage, parcel of confit leg and barberries. The pigeon was perfectly cooked; full or gamey flavour with wonderful texture – an underrated meat. My wife loves cabbage; now when I cook it at home I’ll have to step up my game as she’ll be expecting it cooked and prepared like this in the future.
|Sorry about the chutney smudge - I almost forgot to take a pic!
Next came a selection of British & Irish Cheeses paired with a 1978 Wiese & Krohn Colheita (kindly sent with complements of Mary-Ellen and Laurence.) I eat a lot of cheese and this selection included a few favourites (including the excellent Mrs Bells Blue) and a new one for me, called Old Winchester - a dry, nutty cheese similar to an aged Gouda… a British alternative to the popular Old Amsterdam?
Our pre-dessert was the Grapefruit Posset with Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet. I am aware that the chefs are keen food historians and often experiment with ‘forgotten’ flavour combinations, ingredients and techniques. There are some delightful old recipes for possets knocking about. Check them out on sites such as www.historicfood.com - The fun factor in this dish is added with the dainty teaspoon of grapefruit sherbet; reminiscent of Dib Dabs, Flying Saucers and Sherbet Lemons ‘off of’ my childhood.
At the start of the evening we had informed our waiter that, being greedy folk, we would probably supplement our meal with the additional dessert, Almond Crisp with Chocolate mousse, Griottine cherries & cocoa sorbet. So when one arrived for my wife but not me, I was a little concerned (for a moment). My wife loved this dish, the mousse maintaining an intense chocolaty flavour, despite its creamy texture.
The reason that two Almond Crisps didn’t arrive is because, knowing that I have had that dish before, the Aumbry team wanted me to try another of their dishes, the Treacle Tart with Lemon jelly & Earl Grey cream tea & Earl Grey ice. This is not something I would have selected from the menu as I am not a lover of Earl Grey tea and the treacle tarts that I have had in the past have been far too sickly sweet. Although, the tart lemon jelly and hot cream tea were actually phenomenally good accompaniments, whilst the ice offered an interesting texture and temperature variance. All I can add is that, I remember Mary-Ellen and Laurence’s former boss, Heston Blumenthal, making a Treacle Tart on his BBC series ‘In Search of Perfection’ – I don’t know if he ever found the prefect treacle tart that he was looking for but I suggest he resumes looking in a certain little restaurant about ten minutes from Manchester city centre.
|Petit fours: Homemade pastilles & chocolates
|My green tea with delightful vintage teaware
This is not as daft as it sounds, for tonight as part of the MFDF 2011, Aumbry Restaurant will be hosting a very special charity event in aid of Hospitality Action & the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. A reunion with their former Fat Duck colleagues will see them present a ten course tasting menu with matching wines. Jonny Lake, head chef at the 3* Michelin Fat Duck, James Lowe of the Young Turks and Emily Watkins of the ‘Bib Gourmanded’ Kingham Plough are among those who will be cooking a course each – and I am among those who will be eating them! Watch this space!